They call it the soup. It can be thick or thin, grainy as sandpaper or soft and slushy as a snow cone. You wouldn’t want to eat this soup; though some of the jockeys I know have certainly swallowed a good deal of it. It is, quite simply, mud: thick, oozy, viscous mud.
When the racetrack turns to soup an entire range of possibilities rains down. Of course, some horses run well in the mud, and some don’t handle it at all. Most traditional dirt racing surfaces have a strong, solid cushion underneath, so running on a sloppy track is fairly safe. If the track is “sealed,” that is, compressed the night before an expected storm, then the water sits on the surface. That’s how it becomes soup.
Some horses love the soup. It really is in the blood. That’s why pedigree researchers know the good mud runners. A few trainers will tell you it has to do with the size of the individual’s feet. The bigger the feet, the better they come splashing home. Most students of horse breeding get a rush of adrenaline on rainy days. They crack open the Daily Racing Form and look for those pedigrees with off track sires and dams. (Moms and dads) If you can find one with “top and bottom” (mother’s and father’s pedigree) the heart beats a little faster. A few sires worthy of mention would be Staff Writer, Temperance Hill, and Silver Buck. If I see those names in the pedigree, it’s a slam-dunk.
When Jumron won the 1995 edition of the El Camino Real Derby, a major Kentucky Derby prep race, at Bay Meadows, his pedigree said it all. His sire and grandsire traced to Bold Ruler, a classic off track runner. The mud-stained goggles worn by jockey Goncalino Almeida are among my fondest turf writer’s mementos. Sitting on my bookshelf, the mud has turned to a dusty crust. Like any good soup though, just add water; instant soup.
If you want to get all mystical, however, go to the racetrack on a rainy day. Some of these mud lovers will come out of the clouds to win races at very long odds. In the soup, they seem to find new life. They glide over the gooey surface like speed skaters. Still, as in any horse race, wet or dry, there is danger and a horse or human life can change in a heartbeat. Given the right combination of variables, a run in the soup can produce once in a lifetime experiences.
When apprentice jockey Nate Hubbard climbed aboard a filly named Sweetwater Oak at Golden Gate Fields on February 3, 1989, I’m sure trainer Lavar Larsen wished him luck. For most people, that would mean, I hope you win. For thoroughbred trainers, it means have a safe trip. Racing luck to those who ride or train is always about welfare. Come back safe and sound. Sometimes they say, “get the money,” but that always follows “good luck.” Sweetwater Oak was doing fine in the 6 furlong dash and was actually in a position to win in the final eighth of a mile. When Current Lady took the lead in deep stretch, it looked as if Hubbard’s filly would at least run second. Then destiny struck. Sweetwater Oak momentarily stumbled when another filly, slipping a bit in the slop, bumped into her. Just as jockey Hubbard was about to go head over riding boots, his instincts kicked in. He lunged back toward the stumbling filly and grabbed on to her neck. There he dangled like a Christmas ornament on a tree for the last hundred yards of the race. I remember jockey Ron Warren, on fifth place finisher Lystra easing his mount after the finish and turning around to see Hubbard’s display of strength and balance. Being the excellent horseman that he is, Warren helped slow Sweetwater Oak down so that Hubbard could let go and land safely in the comfort of the soft mud. “I pulled my filly up in front to try and help him,” said Warren, “ I galloped by and then back ed up to make her pull up.” Sweetwater Oak was unhurt, if not a little bemused by her jockey’s lengthy hug. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” said veteran jockey Tom Chapman, who rode the winner. “I stood up and looked back and there he was hanging on. Most of us would just try and fall off if that happened.”
Nate Hubbard saw it a little differently. “When she fell, I grabbed a handful of mane and held on. I was afraid I would get run over.”
Immediately the INQUIRY light flashed red. When jockeys are unseated during a race, the horse is still declared an official starter and everyone connected to that horse from owner to bettor is out of luck. This was different. Hubbard never came all the way off until the race was over. Consulting the exact language in the rulebook, the three Golden Gate Fields stewards, after viewing he head-on replay of the race and much deliberation, declared Sweetwater Oak the second place finisher in the race. Track announcer Larry Collmus explained the ruling. “Sweetwater Oak carried her assigned weight across the finish line and is therefore legally the second place finisher.” Nate Hubbard’s feet never touched the ground. Nowhere in the rules does it say the jockey must be seated at all times.
I could go to every racetrack in the country or watch hundreds of races televised daily for the rest of my life and never see a ride like Nate Hubbard’s cling on again. Most race trackers know that. In fact, it was just that knowledge that put a young photographer, Peg Gruenberg, in the right place to capture that improbable finish. Peg had learned from Golden Gate Fields photographer Steve de Vol, who learned from his father that track photographers must always carry two cameras. If one should run out of film or fail, another must be instantly ready. Peg was prepared and the image of Nate Hubbard’s wild ride circled the globe that night. The photo that resulted was the kind that wins awards. I’m sure it was runner-up for something that year.
Every thoroughbred gets a bath after every race. Unlike the jockeys, if they run in the soup, they get washed and walked and dried off and fed when the race is over. The riders usually have three to six mounts on a racing day. Their baths must wait until the day ends. On a stormy day they go through scores of goggles and maybe even a few pair of riding pants. Their silks change with each new mount, but each multicolored shirt will need a thorough washing before it returns to competition. When the sky opens on a race day, the jocks are thinking soup. They may not always eat it, but they certainly will wear it.
©Bruce Greene, 2008
Bruce Greene taught English and Social Science at El Cerrito High School in the Bay Area for 33 years. He recently retired from full time teaching to devote more time to fly fishing, teacher mentoring, and writing a memoir of the late 1960s. He is an active member of Leora, a writing group he adores in his new hometown, Portland, Oregon.